How to Teach Math for the Real World

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Changing the name of a course helped The University of Wisconsin-Extension embrace outcomes-based education.

Sometimes, starting a transition towards outcomes-based education is as simple as changing the name of a class.

As part of its business degree program, students at The University of Wisconsin-Extension are required to complete an algebra class. It’s not uncommon for teachers to teach a course like algebra by giving students examples that lack context and don’t connect to the real world, despite the subject’s many everyday applications.

To change the way it thinks about algebra, UWEX amended the course title to Business Math. It was a move that Ryan Anderson, Director of Instructional Design and Development, described as “liberating.”

Learn more with our Framework for Outcomes-based Course Design

Now, class exercises are more reasoned and applicable, tied to real-world algebraic problems. Anderson says that when teaching students a foundational skill like algebraic vocabulary, instructors will teach at a conceptual level – through memorization exercises, for example –simply so students can get started. But once they have that bit of foundation, instructors then try to ground everything in real world examples, like how algebraic functions can predict how profit from product sales vary with the cost of advertising. It’s a practical approach the school has begun to apply to other courses.

The difficulty in transitioning to outcomes-based education often lies with teachers being focused too heavily on the classroom experience. The solution is to have them think beyond the classroom and into the real world.

With UWEX’s chemistry class, for example, teachers have students cook in their own kitchens for all experiments. They learn the difference between an acid and a base through the foods they eat. When those same experiments are conducted in a lab, students don’t know that the acid they’re given is lemon juice or the base is baking soda – it just looks like chemicals in bottles. But as soon as the experiments are given that real-world application, it clicks.

“Unfortunately, what we sometimes do in academia is we take something that’s very accessible – like chemistry – and we make it inaccessible, because we don’t attach it to how it plays out in the real world,” says Anderson.

He adds that faculty sometimes need help in thinking about how their information translates to the real world. Thinking beyond the classroom can help teachers ensure that their students are learning how information plays out in everyday life.